NOT JUST SUSHI ANYMORE

Noodle makers cook up growing demand overseas

by Yoshifumi Fujimoto

OSAKA (Kyodo) With Japanese cuisine now long established on the world’s culinary scene, more people outside Japan are developing a taste for one particular type of Japanese food — noodles.

Exports of noodles have been on the increase for the past several years. With Japanese food often associated with safety and quality, it is growing popular in other parts of Asia after it first caught on in major industrialized countries, including the United States.

Exports from the greater Osaka region in particular account for nearly half of the Japanese noodles shipped abroad.

The rising export demand is a bright spot for Japan’s noodle industry, which is facing stagnant business at home.

According to Osaka Customs, exports of noodles surpassed 10,000 tons for the first time ever in 2006. The figure covers shipments of “udon” and “somen,” made with wheat flour, and buckwheat-based “soba.”

Of the exports, 4,555 tons are shipped from the greater Osaka region via the ports of Osaka and Kobe, and Kansai International Airport. The ports and airport also handle shipments from Shikoku, another major noodle-producing area.

The largest buyer of Japanese noodles is the United States, where Japanese dishes have long been popular.

Frozen udon, which is easy to prepare, is seeing especially strong demand. Korean-Americans, for example, prefer “zarusoba” buckwheat noodles, which are eaten by dipping a small morsel at a time into a chilled soy sauce-based broth.

Japanese and other Asians frequent Japanese restaurants in the United States. “After becoming quite accustomed to eating sushi, now more Americans of non-Asian descent are also showing interest in Japanese noodles,” an official at a Japanese food trading company said.

In Hong Kong, affluent consumers are ordering higher-end udon varieties at upscale restaurants, including “sanuki,” which originated in Kagawa Prefecture. Japanese noodles have also become the fast food of choice for many citizens patronizing more reasonably priced eateries.

Many of the noodles exported to Taiwan are dried varieties and sold through retailers, including department stores run by Japanese companies. Udon has become a widely popular family dish there, according to Masaru Chikamoto, an advertising manager with Dayeh Takashimaya, the Taipei-based unit of the major Japanese department store chain.

“The Taiwanese seem to have an affinity for Japanese culinary culture because of the historic ties the island has had with Japan,” Chikamoto said.

Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule from 1895 to 1945.

In Singapore and major cities of mainland China where many Japanese reside, shoppers can buy Japanese noodles at supermarkets.

Udon has also become popular as an ingredient for “huo guo,” a common home-cooked Chinese dish similar to Japanese “nabe,” prepared by putting all manner of food into a pot of boiling water.

“Some foreigners think eating Japanese noodles is a cool thing to do besides being healthy, and the number of Japanese restaurants is increasing abroad, so Japan’s noodle exports should continue to increase,” said Tadafumi Tsuji, a statistician at Osaka Customs.

“While domestic noodle demand is slack, exports have been rising for the past several years,” said Mitsuhiro Ito, a public relations officer with the Hyogo Dry Noodle Association, a group of local marketers.

Noting an ever wider variety of noodles being sold abroad, Ito added, “I hope Japanese noodles will be served not only at restaurants but also eaten at homes abroad.”

Yasuo Kanayama, a manager in charge of exports to Asia at Tokyo food marketer Nishimoto Trading Co., noted a pitfall inherent in the business of selling noodles abroad, however.

“Transport costs tend to be high relative to the prices of noodles, so exports could plunge depending on prevailing foreign-exchange rates,” he said.

“Still, we might be able to boost exports if we offer reasonable prices to foreign consumers and ensure the safety of our products,” Kanayama added.